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Beyond Yellow Springs

Local death penalty opponents decry Ohio’s plans to resume executions

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     After a 3½-year moratorium on executions, Ohio prison officials are preparing to put convicted killer Ronald Phillips to death on Wednesday, July 26.
     On that day, villager Carl Hyde plans to be at the same place he has been for many of the previous 53 times Ohio has executed a man since the state reinstituted the death penalty in 1999 — in vigil outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, where the executions take place.
     The 89-year-old retired physician will travel with other like-minded locals to the gates of the prison to give witness to their opposition to a practice they say is unequal and inhumane, if not morally wrong.
     The resumption of executions is particularly troubling for death penalty opponents as the state plans to use a drug — midazolam — that has a problematic history of use. Inmates in several states have not appeared fully sedated before death set in. In Ohio, in January 2014, Dennis McGuire died more than 25 minutes after midazolam and a sedative were administered into one of his veins. He reportedly gasped and snorted during what is considered the longest execution in Ohio to date.
     “Our core concern at this point is there is so much risk with the death penalty,” said Kevin Werner, director of the nonprofit group Ohioans To Stop Executions, or OTSE, based in Columbus.
     Considering the last “botched execution, to suggest that this time will be different is troubling,” Werner said.
     What’s more, “we have a history of freeing people from death row” who turned out to be innocent. “We can’t be certain who is innocent.”
     There is little doubt, however, that Ronald Phillips committed the crimes that sent him to death row. The Akron man has admitted to the rape and killing of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in 1993, when he was 19 years old.
     The fact of a condemned person’s guilt is not the concern for Hyde. As a physician, “my orientation was to keep people alive,” he said. And as a Quaker, the lives of all people are precious.
     Until 1999, the death penalty hadn’t been an issue in his life, Hyde said, as the U.S. saw an approximately 50-year span when executions were not performed after the Supreme Court found states’ practices unconstitutional. But as individual states, including Ohio, found ways to proceed that met the Court’s proscriptions, he became keenly aware.
     “I had a strong sense this was a bad thing, and it shouldn’t happen,” he said.
With the scheduled execution of Wilford Berry in February 1999, Hyde said he “had a clear leading. I had to be there.”
     He is frequently joined by others from the Yellow Springs Friends Meeting as well as members of St. Paul Catholic Church and the Dharma Center, along with other concerned individuals.
     “We usually have three cars, which is about a dozen people,” who meet at 7 a.m. on the day of execution in front of St. Paul’s. Some go to Lucasville and others go to the State House for a simultaneous action in Columbus.
     The site of the prison vigil is solemn and prayerful. A contingent of Catholic nuns from Cincinnati typically take part, and “one of the sisters leads us in prayer,” Hyde said. “Sister Alice usually brings a bell,” which she and others toll while the execution takes place. “I’ve taken a turn,” Hyde said.
     Villager Pat Dewees, who has been active with Ohioans To Stop Executions, has attended several past vigils. She said one of the Catholic sisters “is in phone contact with the prison” to monitor the proceedings. The entire process, including preparation and aftermath, “takes hours … people are there all day long.”
     They “wait until the hearse leaves with the body.”
Dewees, who has a letter to the editor about the death penalty in the July 20 News, was among a group of villagers who participated last fall in an OTSE-sponsored walk that concluded at the State House and called for the end to state-sanctioned killing.
     In recent months, the OTSE has been pushing for legislation that would exempt the mentally ill from execution.
     Dewees said she is of the opinion that “anybody who commits murder is mentally ill.”
     The proposed exemption is one of a number of recommendations made two years ago by a death penalty task force initiated by the Ohio Supreme Court.
     The OTSE’s Werner is disturbed that “the Legislature has failed to act on any of the recommendations.”
     Two similar bills concerning the mentally ill are currently in committee, one in the House and one in the Senate. Werner said he “expects to see these bills move forward in the fall. … There’s a real need for that piece of legislation.”
     A member of the OTSE’s board, defense attorney Jon Paul Rion, who has property just northwest of the village limits, has been active in death penalty cases in various capacities. He represented the family of Dennis McGuire in suing the state after McGuire’s prolonged death, and he has been defense counsel in five cases where the death penalty was on the table. He said two of the defendants were “completely acquitted, two settled and there was one finding of guilt,” but without a sentence of death.
     He was also on the state Supreme Court task force. “We submitted many suggestions to the Legislature.”
     Rion said the planned resumption of executions is dismaying. “We were slowly becoming optimistic that a more enlightened approach would be taken by the state of Ohio.” He sees no justification in the state engaging “in the same acts … it’s condemning.”
     He added that people may argue about the morality of condemning people to die, “but nobody can argue about” the subjective aspect of sentencing. “It’s a gray area, a qualitative argument, where the skill of the [defense] lawyer is a determining factor,” he said. “And if that is a factor that makes a difference between life and death, you can’t argue that’s not arbitrary.”
     It can’t be justified “given the irreversible sentence of death,” he said.
     As for OTSE, “we’ll be in existence until Ohio no longer has the death penalty,” Director Werner said.
     Likewise, Carl Hyde, Pat Dewees and other local opponents will continue to bear witness against the practice as long and as best they can.

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